'The other stuff will come': Cruz focused on health, not stats

Star shortstop was limited to 9 games in 2023 after breakout '22 campaign

February 19th, 2024

BRADENTON, Fla. -- It can feel as if almost everything about is big. His stature. The exit velocities of the balls that jump off of his bat.

And his left ankle might be the biggest storyline for the Pirates this Spring Training.

“I put in a lot of work in the offseason and right after I got hurt,” Cruz said via team interpreter Stephen Morales. “You’re trying your best and your hardest to get back on the field as soon as possible. I put in a lot of work to be where I’m at right now.”

A year ago, Cruz made clear that one of his goals was a 30-homer, 30-stolen base campaign, if not 40-40. He certainly had the potential. What he didn’t have, it turns out, was enough playing time. His season was cut to just nine games after he fractured his left fibula in a collision at home plate. Initial reports were optimistic that he could return before the year was through, but setbacks kept pushing his recovery back until his season was officially over.

Cruz says he’s 100% now. He’s been practicing at Pirate City without restriction. While drills are hardly at full speed, he’s moving at shortstop cleanly. He is full-go.

Unlike a year ago, though, he just has one goal.

“After the surgery and stuff like that, my main goal is to stay healthy through the whole year,” Cruz said. “I know the other stuff will come.”

There’s plenty riding on Cruz this season. Pittsburgh's -1.1 WAR at the shortstop position last season was the lowest in the Majors, according to FanGraphs, and the collective .626 OPS from the position ranked 26th.

The expectations are high, but it stands to reason that the Pirates' greatest weakness in the lineup a year ago could potentially become one of their biggest strengths with a healthy Cruz.

“Adding an impact player back in the middle of the diamond, that’s something that’s definitely going to benefit us,” manager Derek Shelton said.

In a way, it’s almost like Cruz’s return is one of the biggest additions for the team this winter.

“[We’re] not expecting him to be anybody but himself,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “He missed a lot of time. He's coming off a major injury. We understand the game's hard. He's going to need some reps, he's going to need to get back into game activity, get back into competition. We're so excited he'll have the opportunity to do that.”

The Pirates are working to get Cruz extra reps in camp before game action starts on Saturday. He’s been spotted doing private infield work with bench coach Don Kelly. Shelton said that Cruz will get more reps in live batting practice to help him get his timing back. The biggest hurdle he had to clear from a mental standpoint was running again -- something that caused the first notable setback in his recovery last year. But now that Cruz has checked that box, he is in position to compete again.

Cruz had a chance to watch the game through a different lens last year. Now, he gets to implement it. After all, there is a difference between a lost season and being hurt for the year.

“As someone who's played the game his whole life, if you take a year away, [you hope he learns about] just the appreciation of the game,” Shelton said. “I think we saw that, especially late in the year when he started to be part of the team again, he was able to functionally take ground balls and move around. You saw that smile start to come back a bit, because going through rehab is a grind and it's tough, especially for a young player missing significant time.”

Even without Cruz last year, the Pirates took a significant step forward, winning 14 more games than they did compared to 2022. They will need to make a similar leap this year if they want to become contenders.

If they do that, it’s safe to assume Cruz will need to be a big reason why.

“Me being in the lineup will help the team a lot,” Cruz said. “Last year, I missed it, and I know I was missed by the team not being in the lineup. I know I can contribute a lot to the team and get more wins, that’s for sure.”